Guitarist Pete Kennedy Is Happy Doing His Own Eclectic, Non-Electric Thing

SMALL CROWDS, BIG TALENT

November 22, 1992|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

After a while it becomes an impossible blur: the heavy E string caught between his thumb and forefinger, stretched taut, snapped sharply back against the frets. Quickly now, the heel of his right hand thumps down once, twice onto the bridge of his big Taylor 510 guitar. The overall effect is a hollow whap-boom-boom that he repeats again and again -- a steady stream of 16th notes, a staccato 1-2-3 rhythm, with the 4th note missing -- the pattern perfectly offsetting the accent of the song so that it pulses like a churning helicopter rotor, an African drum beat, an aching heart about to break in two.

He does all of this, Pete Kennedy, while standing on top of the bar in the Top Side restaurant in Galesville, a normally quiet burg on the West River, just below Annapolis. Though not especially tall, he has to bend his head carefully so that the blade of the overhead ceiling fan does not cut short his song or his life expectancy. After a few minutes he leaps down and grabs an unopened pint of Thunderbird wine. He slides the glass bottle up and down the strings of the guitar's neck with his left hand, while his right deftly picks out the bluesy, tormented notes. Whatever funk you have within you has been coaxed out onto the table in front of you; the feeling is almost indescribable, as if a chunk of concrete has been lifted from your soul.

When he is done, the people in the audience -- all nine of them -- gasp and pound their palms red. Mr. Kennedy beams an engaging grin as if this were a packed house at Carnegie Hall. The 40-year-old singer, songwriter and virtuoso guitarist from Fairfax, Va., plays regularly on some of the largest stages in America, backing up stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith and John Stewart. But he seems genuinely untroubled by the dozens of empty tables and chairs on this slow night at the Top Side, a comfortably rustic wharfside restaurant known more for its crab cakes and Dixieland music on Sunday nights than its country-rock on weeknights.

He launches blissfully into another frenetic tune, moving casually among the tables as he plays, sitting himself on the edge of the fireplace that divides the dining room from the bar. There he crosses his legs and aims his words and notes point-blank at each of his rapt listeners.

Later, after the show, he leans against his black Toyota pickup truck, a youthful-looking man in pointy-toed black patent leather boots, tight-fitting black jeans, a black tank-top shirt, and unruly brown hair. He nods at the front door of the Top Side.

"The intimacy is here," he said. "It's almost impossible to make a connection in a big place. This is more fun. To be playing when you can see people's faces. Every word you sing they show some kind of reaction. I never want to lose that kind of thing. If I was a big star I'd never get to play in a small place like this."

IF BIG STAR means Garth Brooks or Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pete Kennedy is right: He's not one of those. But if you like contemporary acoustic music, bending a little toward rock and blues, and if you live anywhere in the area between Northern Virginia and Philadelphia, it would be hard not to be aware of the size of Pete Kennedy's reputation. Within that tight country-folkie-rock world it seems as if someone is always singing one of his songs, or promoting one of his appearances, or lamenting that they had to go out and shoot their guitar after hearing him play.

Since 1985 he has been honored by one local music association or another as the area's best free-lance musician, best instrumentalist, best songwriter, best rock and roller, best country guitarist, best folkie, best bluesman, best jazz man, best picker, best grinner. His recordings have won a variety of awards, his videos have won regional Emmys. But to show just how difficult it is to categorize him, his "Highway 10" album was honored simultaneously by the Washington Area Music Awards as the best folk/acoustic and the best rock/pop album of the year.

Most recently, following the release of two new albums by Mr. Kennedy -- "Channel 3" and "Shearwater," -- Maryland Musician magazine named him to its top listings of rock, folk and bluegrass musicians, based on a reader poll. The magazine outright labeled him the best acoustic guitar player in the area and managing editor J. Doug Gill went one better. Lamenting that in spite of such an illustrious pedigree, Mr. Kennedy had yet to enjoy his "big break," he called him "the unsungest of the unsung."

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